Ignoble reactions to the Nobel Peace Prize

Not everyone is pleased Liu Xiaobo is this year's laureate

The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was obviously not going to go down well with Beijing. It is intriguing to note, however, the reaction in China itself and that in the neighbouring region.

Clifford Coonan reports in today's Independent that "many Chinese see it as yet another attack on China, embodying what they see as sour grapes in the West about China's startling economic rise and a lack of understanding of how the country works." He also points to criticism from Wei Jingsheng, a pro-democracy activist imprisoned for two decades and now in exile in the US. "In my observation, the Nobel Peace Prize is going to Liu because he is different from the majority of people in opposition. He made more gestures of cooperation with the government and made more criticism of other resisters who suffered," Wei told the AFP news agency.

About the strongest local criticism of the award so far has come from Singapore, from one of the city-state's most prominent former diplomats, currently Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani. I'm indebted to Asia Sentinel for picking up the following remarks he made at a dinner last Friday:

"We all respect the Nobel Peace Prize. Most winners deserve the prizes they get. Nobel Prizes by and large reflect the western world view. The winners in Asia are never leaders who brought great change. The man that did more good than anyone was Deng Xiaoping. When he came to power 800 million people were living on less than one dollar a day. Thirty years later on after the results of his reforms, 200 million lived on less than one dollar a day. Six hundred million people were lifted out of poverty.

Will he ever get a Nobel Peace Prize? Never. Because of the western world view that the prize must be given to dissidents in Asia. Aung San Suu Kyii (although she deserves it). The former leader of Korea. What has Obama brought? Where is the peace in Iraq? In Afghanistan? How can you give him a Nobel Peace Prize? He is a wonderful guy but he has achieved nothing. Deng Xiaoping saved 600 million people and he will never get a Nobel Peace Prize. That's why it is important to step outside the western world view."

Mahbubani conveniently omits to mention the matter of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. If it were possible to leave that aside, then a strong case for Deng's period of office could be made. But it isn't, which makes the suggestion grotesque and gratuitously offensive. Also on Asia Sentinel, the International Herald Tribune columnist and former Far Eastern Economic Review editor, Philip Bowring, puts Mahbubani smartly right, calling his comments about dissidents "just the sort of half-truth that one expects from Singapore apologists for authoritarian regimes similar to their own. It also reflects Singapore's attempts to appear ultra-Asian while aligning its economic and strategic interests with the west."

However, even if he represents an extreme end of the spectrum, Mahbubani will not be alone in his view of how this year's Nobel Peace Laureate was chosen. President Obama and representatives of EU countries, including Britain and France, have welcomed the award, as have the governments of New Zealand and Australia - which as Asia-Pacific countries have a much more direct interest in good relations with China.

But from the leaders of the ten nation ASEAN bloc bordering China, I can find no evidence of congratulations to Liu - nor even any statement in which he is named. Just silence.

An example of a rather ignoble pragmatism? Tacit sympathy with those "Asian Values" of which Mahbubani is just one exponent (Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir or Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee being two others)? Perhaps. Or maybe with their own less-than-perfect human rights records, they prefer not to laud those who might well have ended up in jail in their countries too.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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